The German Leicester... how Kaiserslautern shocked the Bundesliga in 1998
By Gerard Brand
Last Updated: 28/04/16 12:42pm
In recent months, Leicester's 5,000/1 Premier League title charge has drawn only a handful of parallels from English football's modern era.
Nottingham Forest's triumphs under Brian Clough in the late 70s and early 80s and, further back, Ipswich Town's successful first crack at the First Division under Alf Ramsey in 1962, are both obvious comparisons.
But just 18 years ago on the continent, a similar tale unfolded. The story of Kaiserslautern's 1997/98 Bundesliga win is one less told, but just as unprecedented.
Having risen from the second division under footballing miracle-worker Otto Rehhagel in 1997, Kaiserslautern became the only Bundesliga team to win the title after being promoted the previous season.
Their success was unthinkable given the mid-90s dominance of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, but Rehhagel's first of two major career turn-ups was a masterstroke.
Before leading Greece to a miraculous Euro 2004 crown six years later, Rehhagel turned German football on its head, giving players freedom on and off the pitch, and creating a team without superstars. Sound familiar?
Claudio Ranieri's buzzword throughout the season has been 'freedom'. Play with freedom, train with freedom, live with freedom - an alien concept to those of us who welcomed the supposed 'Tinkerman' back to the Premier League with widespread predictions of relegation.
Jose Mourinho won Chelsea's first title in 50 years in 2005 with a rigorous training schedule matched by a meticulous tactical approach. This was chalk and cheese to Ranieri's Blues side and his flexible approach the previous season, according to Damien Duff in Graham Hunter's Big Interview, but there are no textbooks to winning trophies.
Ranieri fell short of silverware during his three-and-a-half years at Stamford Bridge, but his current success, and Rehhagel's from years past, shows hands-off can be just as effective as hands-on.
For Kaiserslautern, the journey to May 1998 started with relegation. Dropping from the top flight in 1996 having won their first Bundesliga title just five years earlier, Rehhagel swiftly took the second tier by 10 points.
Andree Wagner, a Kaiserslautern fan who has studied Rehhagel's success closely, remembers the time well, and his description of their situation before and during the title success has uncanny similarities with Leicester's.
"Their relegation into the second division caused absolute agony around the team," he told Sky Sports. "Even insolvency was officially discussed.
"But the goal for the new season was merely: stay in the Bundesliga. The fans loved the team because it was a fantastic mix of players. Fans, team and coach became an absolute union."
It was apt that Kaiserslautern's opening game of the season would be at champions Bayern Munich. They won 1-0, but Rehhagel was quick to manage expectations and take the pressure off the players.
"Otto gave us our freedom on the pitch," Olaf Marschall, who was their top scorer that season with 21 goals, told UEFA.com last year. "He told us the line-up; we did the rest. Everyone helped out in defence, even the strikers, chasing the ball as soon as we'd lost it. A bit like Dortmund when they won their recent Bundesliga titles."
They earned 33 points out of the next possible 42 up to December, but the title talk was still under wraps, allowing the team to go on without heightened publicity, further helped by Bayern and Dortmund's rocky starts to the campaign.
Like Ranieri, Rehhagel's coolness and experience from previous high-level jobs helped stem the attention away from Kaiserslautern, but Wagner remembers how inside the camp, the club were conscious of their momentum since the win over Bayern.
"Marschall was the main man in attack, and Jurgen Rische also contributed to the goals, with young midfielder Marco Reich providing the service," he said.
"From the first day Kaiserslautern were riding on top of a wave. The fans were high on emotion and the team were playing successfully."
But how was that success brought about on the pitch? Like Leicester, it started with industry at the back and yielded deadly results in attack, but with a defensive role rarely seen in football in 2016.
The sweeper was one of the hallmarks of German football - think Franz Beckenbauer in 1974, Klaus Augenthaler in 1990, Mattias Sammer in 1996 - and Kaiserslautern used it perfectly.
Wagner says: "Possibly the most important tactic was the implementation of Miroslav Kadlec as the 'libero', the sweeper at No 5, the independent man behind the defence.
"This was a special German success story in the national team. It was the key factor for success. Many saw Kadlec as the best libero in Europe, but a man that was very introverted and needed full support from the manager."
Kadlec, a 33-year-old Czech international who had been at the club eight years, received that backing, and stood behind the "pure, destructive" defenders in Harry Koch, Axel Roos and Michael Schoenberg.
Swiss international Ciriaco Sforza, a summer signing from Inter Milan, played a major role in midfield, alongside Andreas Buck, Martin Wagner, and even cameos from a young Michael Ballack.
While Ballack's status rose after 1998, the other names in this fairytale side are still unfamiliar to most outside of Germany. There were no superstars, and team spirit overshadowed the need for any names to be put in lights.
"Everybody was a boss without being bossy," says Wagner. One player was fighting for the other without being jealous of their success.
"It was a mix of stars who remained grounded, nobody played the superstar. The result was an unbelievable shock for football in Germany."
From December they drew more than they won, but the title was wrapped up on the penultimate day of the season with a 4-0 home win over Wolfsburg, while Bayern could only draw 0-0 at Duisburg.
Cue a party for the 80,000-population city that lasted a week. Kaiserslautern was a sea of red, the players banged drums on the roof of their open-top 'truck', and German football has yet to see a story quite like it.
With one hand on the trophy, Leicester should have that party to look forward to, but what will happen after remains a mystery.
"Never change a winning team," was the motto tied to Ramsey, the man who led England to World Cup glory in 1966, but with the addition of the Champions League next season, that nugget of advice won't stick for Ranieri. If Kaiserslautern's years following the title triumph are anything to go by, the warning signs are clear.
Kadlec left the club in the summer, along with Pavel Kuka and Andreas Brehme through retirement. Rehhagel failed to replace the departures like for like, and though a respectable fifth-place finish was achieved in 1998/99 along with a Champions League quarter-final appearance, the seeds of disharmony behind the scenes were already planted.
The club allowed Ballack to leave for Bayer Leverkusen in 1999, much to the annoyance of the supporters, before Sforza, now captain, publicly criticised Rehhagel and his tactics.
He was dropped, then more back and forth between Rehhagel, Sforza and the club's CEO Jurgen Freidrich ensued, while other members of the squad supported their captain.
"Rehhagel took Sforza back into the squad but there was no relationship there anymore," remembers Wagner. "The coach and captain didn't talk, it was a disaster for the club.
"The hierarchy within the team began to crumble, and leaders like Marschall, a friend of Sforza, also saw their position weakened because they supported the captain. Rehhagel saw this as an additional attack."
They finished fifth again in 1999/00 under Rehhagel, but by October 2000, King Otto's reign was over, resigning after what some described as a smear campaign.
Kaiserslautern completed the full circle in football terms, slowly stumbling down the table for the next five seasons before relegation in 2006.
For Leicester, their Premier League rivals have some making up to do next season, and their push for the top again will undoubtedly encounter more obstacles.
As Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and the other Premier League title-winning managers have declared with experience - retaining is the real challenge.